When art historians saw Paris fall to the Nazis in World War II, they immediately realized Europe's vast monuments, art, cathedrals and architecture were at risk and began mobilizing to protect such treasures.
In Washington, the newly opened National Gallery of Art became the U.S. museum world's epicenter for lobbying President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Allied forces in 1941 to prevent the destruction of Europe's monuments. Their efforts would create a corps of U.S. and British soldiers who worked to protect cultural sites and recover looted art after the war.
Now for the first time, photographs, maps, correspondence and records — including lists of art amassed by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders — from the corps of soldiers known as "monuments men" are going on display at the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and the National Archives.
At the same time, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett tell the story in "The Monuments Men" movie opening Friday, drawing new attention to the history. It's a story straight out of the nation's archives and art repositories from the records that real monuments men and women left behind.
One of them was George Leslie Stout, an art conservator at the Fogg Museum in Boston, who drafted a plan for a special military team to protect Europe's art from Allied bombings. He even enlisted in the Navy with hopes of seeing his plan through. Leaders at the National Gallery of Art pressed the case with justices of the Supreme Court and the president, and their efforts led to the creation of the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section.
Shortly before D-Day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower issued an order for every field commander to guard irreplaceable sites as Allied troops invaded the European mainland to defeat Germany.
"Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve," Eisenhower said in 1944. "It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible."
Surrounded by the destruction of war, the monuments unit mapped important sites to save and later turned to recovering and returning stolen artwork — a change from the spoils-of-war practices of the past.
Personal papers from Stout and other "monuments men," including James Rorimer and Walker Hancock, were later acquired by the Archives of American Art and the National Gallery. Filmmakers consulted the archives in making the movie, including some of the records now displayed, said Kate Haw, director of the Smithsonian's archive.
"The movie will make a great story, and then people can come learn the history by coming to us," she said.
Rarely seen images now on view at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum show a garden sculpture at the Palace of Versailles draped in camouflage netting for protection, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany where the Nazis amassed stolen art and the rescue of Michelangelo's 1504 sculpture "Madonna and Child," which had been stolen from a church in Bruges, Belgium.
Among the documents on display are the records of art historian Rose Valland who spied on the Nazis at the Paris museum where she worked and kept notes on plundered art, as well as the personal inventory of art looted for Nazi leader Hermann Goering's personal collection.
One recently discovered "Hitler Album" of looted art also is displayed at the National Archives, while additional documents and archival photos go on display Feb. 11 at the National Gallery of Art.
A permanent "Monuments Men Experience" is being developed at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It's scheduled to open in 2016.
Examining the real records helps bring the story of the "monuments men" to life, said Maygene Daniels, chief of the National Gallery's archives.
"What we're trying to recreate is what it was like to be a young officer trained in art history or archaeology who finds yourself in the military and has this amazing responsibility of protecting great art," she said. "It was an extraordinary moment in history."